Oxford Companion: Good, not Perfect

Detail of text from the Oxford Companion to Beer

We like The Oxford Companion to Beer (ed. Garrett Oliver) a lot more than we were expecting to and, although far from perfect, it certainly beats any other catch-all on the market.

So, let’s get the big flaws out of the way. First, entries differ wildly in tone of voice and occasionally contradict each other. Wikipedians would describe some as “not encylopedic in tone”. But then, each entry is attributed, and this is pointedly not an encylopedia with a capital E — it’s a ‘Companion’, suggesting something less formal.

Secondly, every tenth entry is written through the weird prism of American home brewing culture, with phrases like “true to style” and “German ale” occuring in pieces which stridently expound very shaky history, citing less than credible sources. But then critical readers (like wot we are) will spot these entries a mile off and take them with a pinch of salt. They don’t ruin the whole book.

Finally, on the subject of sources, there are too few primary sources cited, and many instances where one contributor cites another contributor’s book as the source for an entry. Cliquey-ness? Laziness? Primary sources inspire a great deal of confidence in a reader and any serious attempt at history should use them.

Having said all of that, those flaws and a few others do not mean there isn’t a great deal to enjoy.

The more technical entries covering contemporary brewing practices, hop and barley varieties and chemical processes are fascinating and (to us at least) seem well sourced and credible. Every time we pick it up, we learn something new, and feel inspired to read more elsewhere.

A few years ago, when we wanted to buy a friend a primer on beer, the best we could find was the Eyewitness Guide edited by the late Michael Jackson. Although the Oxford Companion is expensive, it is now the best book to buy anyone wanting to get a good overview — or at least to begin to appreciate the complexity and depth — of the world of beer.

If nothing else, it will hopefully spur others on to produce similar, bigger, better books. With apologies to those who have worked hard writing them, we don’t need any more variations on 750 Beers to Try Before You Need Your Stomach Pumped, where pornographic pictures of beer are accompanied by tasting notes.

Note: we got a free review copy from Oxford University Press.

Things have changed

ushers

Egon Ronay’s 1990 guide to pub and bar food is a fascinating read, having become something of a historical document.

For each pub he includes, he lists the beer available, and many of the brands have now disappeared: Ind Coope, Watneys, Charrington, Usher’s and Eldridge Pope crop up repeatedly.  And whatever happened to Fuller’s K2 lager?

One the whole, things seemt to have improved. Even the best pubs in the 1990 edition seem to be there largely because they offered two real ales rather than one, and there was a lot of Webster’s Yorkshire Bitter on offer. The White Horse was rated as the best pub in London but, by current standards, sounds pretty run-of-the-mill.

But this passage from the introduction still rings true:

Have you ever walked into a pub full of people and immediately felt totally isolated? This can happen when most of the clientele already know each other and may have unwittingly sat in old Joe’s favourite chair by the fire. Fine if you are a member of the ‘club’ but not so pleasant if you are a stranger… On their travels, our inspectors are invariably strangers and gauge a pub on how well they are received and looked after as such. There is no point in recommending an otherwise lovely old inn somewhere in the wilds if visitors to the area are not going to feel welcome once inside.

The Good Bierkeller Guide

biergartenbook

There are quite a few guides in German aimed at people who like beer gardens, but we think we’ve found the best.

Frankens Schoenste Bierkeller and Biergarten by Markus Raupach and Bastian Böttner is a weighty but handily sized guide to the most attractive gardens and pubs in Franconia. Even though our German is rudimentary, we found it easy to follow. For each city, town and village in Franconia, it suggests between two and twenty decent places to drink. It lists the beers on offer; gives details of how to to get to each boozer on public transport; and offers special tips for each one (Excellent asparagus menu in season! Particularly nice dunkel! Wonderful panoramic views from the terrace! And so on).

If you’re a regular visitor to Franconia, we’d say it’s a must, and a bargain at €16.95.

And its endless photos of green, sunlit beer gardens aren’t a bad way to cheer yourself up after a journey home from work in the rain, either.

More ale in literature: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Courtesty of Anne Bronte:

‘I don’t take wine, Mrs. Markham,’ said Mr. Millward, upon the introduction of that beverage; ‘I’ll take a little of your home- brewed ale. I always prefer your home-brewed to anything else.’

Flattered at this compliment, my mother rang the bell, and a china jug of our best ale was presently brought and set before the worthy gentleman who so well knew how to appreciate its excellences.

‘Now THIS is the thing!’ cried he, pouring out a glass of the same in a long stream, skilfully directed from the jug to the tumbler, so as to produce much foam without spilling a drop; and, having surveyed it for a moment opposite the candle, he took a deep draught, and then smacked his lips, drew a long breath, andrefilled his glass, my mother looking on with the greatest satisfaction.

‘There’s nothing like this, Mrs. Markham!’ said he. ‘I always maintain that there’s nothing to compare with your home-brewed ale.’

‘I’m sure I’m glad you like it, sir. I always look after the brewing myself, as well as the cheese and the butter – I like to have things well done, while we’re about it.’

Nice to see that a good head was preferred on a pint even back then (although Anne was a northern lass, of course, so she would be that way inclined).  It’s also a good reminder of the fact that making ale was women’s work until comparatively recently.

Boak

Text courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

Drinking in Elizabethan London

The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado
The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado

Gamini Salgado’s The Elizabethan Underworld is a fairly obvious attempt to follow the success of Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld, which itself was an update of Henry Mayhew. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating read, especially for those interested in London’s pubs.

The first thing to note is that, according to Salgado’s sources (all fully referenced and quoted at length), Elizabethan pubs were full of con-artists, thieves, pimps and whores. A ‘cony’ was anyone new in town, usually an innocent looking bloke from the countryside, who could be preyed upon by these criminals, therefore known collectively as ‘cony-catchers’.

In short, the Elizabethan pub was a kind of trap for bumpkins.

Salgado says:

There were different grades of ordinary and tavern into which the cony was lured by the cony-catchers, ranging from the fashionably expensive to the squalid.

He lists:

  • twelvepenny ordinaries — posh pubs for fashionable chaps to play dice or cards
  • citizens ordinaries — where skint professional types hung out, from bedsit dwelling bachelors to stingy lawyers, ‘the price threepence’
  • low ordinaries — ‘where eating and drinking was largely incidental to more dubious occupations’
  • alehouses — ‘often… the back kitchen of a mean dwelling, standing on some obscure back street, and… frequently unlicensed’.

A woodcut of an Elizabethan tavern scene

The latter sounds interesting, with more beer being consumed than wine, unlike the other types of establishment. According to Salgado, alehouses proliferated in the 16th century because people got fussy about their beer and were no longer keen to drink nasty homebrewed ale. Bigger brewers would sell commercial beer to amateur back-room landlords on credit, who would then only need to find a few tables a and chairs to make a bit of cash on the side.

Sadly, no mention is made of Pimlico Ale, which continues to intrigue us.

This is another in our series of pub guides for time travellers. See this post for info on London in the 1960s.